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Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century or, If Knausgaard Is the New Proust, Can Elena Ferrante Be the New Tolstoy?

By Karen Hornick

Part 1

I’m all about finding the political in art, but assertions about the role of art in the political make me nervous, maybe more nervous than they should. But...

Narrative is a rhetorical structure used for all sorts of reasons not ineluctably aesthetic. These days, however, that isn’t always clear because writers on everything from education to presidential politics keep talking about the “need for narrative.” I’m pretty sure they’re referring to stories that tell people who they are now and who they can become in future—i.e., the imaginary land where identities and communities are born. If you think about what “narrative” means in that context, then, the word becomes synonymous with less palatable words such as “dogma” or “ideology” or “belief system,” and you may become as creeped out as I do when hear people praising politicians for “providing a new narrative” or faulting them for “losing the narrative.” Cautions against this trend go back more than a decade, but narrative boosterism continues unabated. It’s as if the best rulers are the best storytellers, and we’ll be happier and better with a good story rather than, say, actual justice.

What is the source of this preference for “narrative” as a way to refer to the language we use to impress ideas upon people about the true state of reality and convey aspirations for a better tomorrow? It may represent a deep will to move away from moral and overtly political considerations to aesthetic ones, but let’s pray not. That is, of course, precisely what Goebbels and Hitler manufactured amongst Germans in the late 1920s. The business of turning politics into aesthetics is—as Walter Benjamin argued so bluntly—precisely what made Fascism fascist, but such analogies end argument, so let’s set aside the nightmare scenario for a moment and look for other points of origin.

If there is, at the moment, a general preference for “narrative” over words such as “value system” or “ideology,” this may reflect a certain story we’ve heard about what recent generations of schoolchildren have been taught: there is no such thing as absolute, unmediated truth, all assertions are contingent upon their place in time and space, etc. But does insisting our children understand that all political stories are “mere nursery tale” actually lead them to want something other than more stories? I remain skeptical about the possibility that may have given rise to a healthy new skepticism, and I would suggest that this call for “narratives” might better be seen in relation, not to the ideational content or ethical values of our modern stories, but in relation to the form in which they are told.

Does teaching children that all truth comes in story packages teach them to identify better stories? I have no idea. I want to try to say something about the impact of a certain form of narrative upon me as a reader, however, and in latter installments of this essay, I will offer some inferences about the form of stories we seem to prefer in the early 21st century. I remain attached to the (Hegelian?) idea that the forms of narrative that circulate within a given epoch tell us more about the times than their contents. So this is a story that will take a very long time to tell, a story that can be told in only one form: serialization.

What might it mean that today, across every media platform, a certain narrative form seems ascendant: tales of long duration delivered to us in small(er) parcels over regular intervals of time? Harry Potter, I’m thinking of you, and there is little need here to list all the other serial YA fiction, movie franchises, cable television series that consume years of making and receiving. More surprising, maybe, at this point, has been the extraordinary popular embrace of serialized storytelling to radio (e.g., The Serial—good name) and even, if you want to think broadly, popular music like Kendrick Lamar’s hip hop concept album, good kid, m.A.A.d city.

What interests me most of all, though, is the emergent trend in Western European literature towards multi-volumed, ostensibly “autobiographical,” novels published over years but following the story of a single individual over the course of a lifetime—and what I’m calling a “trend” is only really visible in the work of three writers, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan novels” (as her American publisher calls them) and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. St. Aubyn’s series (is it a true “serial”? I shall argue in the affirmative) is the only complete one of these three, in English anyway. The fourth and final novel in Ferrante’s series will not appear in English in the U.S. until September, 2015, but it is her novels that I shall discuss first.

Part 2: Elena Ferrante and the Big Moment! Coming soon to these pages (if my editor wills it)...

From May, 2015

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